Arthur slade THE HUNCHBACK ASSIGNMENTS 01 the hunchback assignments (v5 0)

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FOR TORI, with all my love PROLOGUE The Foxhound SIX HUNTING HOUNDS HAD PERISHED in previous experiments Dr Cornelius Hyde crouched in the cellar of his manor staring over his spectacles at Magnus, the last surviving hound The iron cage was sturdy, its door locked tight, and the dog looked healthy except for his drooping head He had survived the operation that replaced his skull, jaws, and teeth with metal, but the weight of it all was too much for him to bear for long periods of time He needed strength and ferocity Soon, Hyde hoped, these needs would be dealt with Hyde opened a hatch at the top of the cage and carefully attached a coiled wire to each of the bolts that extended out of the hound’s shoulders The dog didn’t move The doctor then connected the wire to a gyroscope sitting on a broken chair Hyde sat in another chair at a table His smooth, ink-stained hands trembled as he jotted down: March 7, 1860, 7:35 p.m Trial He felt certain that this time the elixir would have the desired e ect He hadn’t slept or washed in days, having spent every hour measuring the elements precisely, mixing them, and boiling the compound in a glass beaker He didn’t wish to see his favorite foxhound su er with the same tremors and terrors that had consumed the other hounds as they succumbed to a slow, contorted death Hyde spoke hoarsely “You are a good companion.” Magnus raised his head with some e ort and wagged his tail His master winced and ran a hand through his graying shock of hair It had been months since he’d had it cut “This is for science,” he explained tenderly “Science Mother Nature’s design has failed you, but mine will not.” Magnus went on wagging He was nine years old His back was lean and well muscled, his front legs as straight as posts The dog had always been loyal and even-tempered; not once had he snapped in anger He had hunted alongside Hyde in the days when the doctor needed to feign interest in such folly in order to procure funding from lords and gentlemen Their contributions enabled him to continue his research Those days were well past The members of the Society of Science in London now treated him with scorn, accusing him of madness and tampering with the natural order, as though changing a creature’s chemistry and structure for the better was something beyond evil Scientific heresy! they’d shouted They cut o his funds Half the scientists were members of Parliament They convinced the government to declare his experiments a crime A crime! The thought of those fat, arrogant politicians debating the value of his work enraged Dr Hyde He pictured them voting to outlaw his experiments, the Society of Science dullards nodding their heads “Fools!” he whispered “Stupid, mindless fools!” A few days after the vote, constables kicked open the door to his city home and scated most of his equipment He ed to his country manor to conduct his experiments in the cellar He scrounged for funds and was reduced to using the last of his inheritance and his remaining few beakers and compounds to carry out trials upon his own animals Soon he would be dragged away to debtor’s prison Above him the oorboards creaked He listened intently, ears buzzing Until recently he would have assumed it to be his manservant, but Hyde had dismissed him a fortnight earlier Could it be a constable? He waited for a full minute, changed nally deciding the sound was only the shifting of the house It grumbled every time the weather Hyde picked up a ask of bloodred liquid from the table, the burned almond smell making him cringe He’d been working on this tincture now for seven years “For the sake of knowledge,” he said to the air He carefully lled the bowl in the cage The hound stared at his master, his neck even weaker from the weight of his metal head, his tail limp “Go on, Magnus,” Hyde urged, his heart near breaking “Drink Drink your medicine.” But the dog wouldn’t move Hyde couldn’t help wondering if Magnus knew he was in danger Over the past few weeks his keen ears had surely picked up the agitated barks, unearthly howls, and final whimpers of his brethren Did he understand that he would be next? For a long time the dog watched Hyde, though he could barely hold his head up He began lapping the tincture, his pink tongue rubbing on metal teeth He kept his eyes on Hyde The doctor swallowed hard, bile in his throat Beside him on the table was a clockwork model of a hound, about one-sixteenth life-size He patted it and gears clicked and spun The metallic dog wagged its tail Hyde smiled; imagine what he might create if he could only get his hands on the proper resources! He reached for his quill and notebook The dog grimaced and revealed silver teeth His head was higher now For the rst time ever Hyde heard the sweet-natured dog growl Magnus’s head jerked from side to side, as though he didn’t recognize his surroundings His attention settled on the cage’s hinges and locks, and he attacked them again and again Sparks ew, metal bent, and Hyde stepped back He crouched, ready to run, but the cage was holding together Under the gaslight, the doctor wrote copious notes, dipping his quill frantically into the inkwell He was so absorbed in recording his observations that he didn’t hear the cellar door open He didn’t see a gure steal down the stairway and slip into the shadows Magnus howled, arching his back until it pressed against the top of the cage He banged his head against the side, making the bars bend If his skull had been made of bone it would have shattered Hyde’s eyes grew wide The hound seemed to have grown larger, his muscles swelling, quivering under his thin hide His paws were bigger, his nails more like claws, and they dug into the iron-plated floor The beast threw himself at the door of the cage and the whole contraption inched closer to the doctor, who scribbled down each change in behavior Magnus stopped to glare at Hyde hungrily, then attacked the cage again Hyde was amazed at the dog’s increased stamina No sign of weariness No drooping neck Then, when Magnus’s fury was at its highest, the gyroscope began to turn Hyde held his breath as the machine spun so quickly it blurred, the base vibrating It fell to the oor and thumped around until it disconnected from the wires and stopped His theory was true! Some inner power that could be harnessed existed The tincture had brought it out of the dog It was half an hour before Magnus let out a yelp, whimpered, and de ated He looked a ectionately at Hyde as if to apologize for his outburst, then collapsed Hyde moved over to the cage, still making notes The hound’s chest heaved A wan smile crossed Hyde’s face Alive! The next task would be to nd a way to control the hound once it had been enhanced What a wonder he would be then The perfect hound Ready to hunt much larger game than ducks Hounds would only be the beginning The true test would be to discover the tincture’s effect on a man A soft clapping shocked him out of his imaginings “Bravissimo, Doctor.” It was the voice of a woman with an unusual accent Hyde jerked around so fast he nearly toppled over The intruder was on the far side of the cellar, cloaked in darkness “How did you get in?” “Through the door, of course It is a shame that someone of your stature is in such severe nancial straits that you had to dismiss your staff.” “Who are you?” “I am the servant of a great cause Our organization has had our eyes on you for years now, Dr Hyde.” He pointed his quill in the direction of her voice “I’m doing nothing wrong Are you with the inspectors?” She laughed coldly “No I not represent lackeys of your government As I said, I am the humble servant of a guild of like-minded people; people who are unafraid to challenge the status quo Let us just say my employer is very interested in your research You have a marvelous mind, to understand clockwork and chemistry so well We desire both, especially your potion.” “It’s a drug, not a potion.” She moved into the light Hyde sucked in his breath She was lithe and pale and beautiful, her bright red hair tied in complicated braids Hyde had believed himself long immune to such beauty, but he couldn’t stop looking at her, couldn’t think of a word to say Then he noticed that her left hand was a hook, the metal glinting in the low light He adjusted his spectacles, squinting “Your hand,” he said “I would have replaced it with a much better instrument.” “Oh, I believe you,” she said, hiding the hook behind her back “But after all, it was just a hand A man with your vision deserves a much larger canvas You would like that, wouldn’t you, Dr Hyde?” He glanced at the sleeping form of Magnus, at the clockwork model on the table, at the crumbling walls of the cellar, then back at the woman “Yes Yes, I would.” “Then, Doctor, we have so very much to discuss.” Abomination T he large carriage rattled with grotesqueries—bones of cats and pigs strung up as wind chimes, bleached bear skulls dangling from wires, and three shrunken monkey heads mounted on posts Their glass eyes stared out at the approaching winter Bells that from reins tinkled, warning away wandering spirits Four horses pulled the carriage, hip bones protruding from their bedraggled esh, hides scarred by thousands of whippings Huddled behind them in a thick, worn coat and muffler was a grizzled old man The tall, slim gentleman watched the carriage approach down a rutted, moonlit road A cold breath of wind tested his knee-length greatcoat, but he didn’t shiver His closecropped hair, white since birth, glowed in the dull light His sharp eyes scanned the carriage, from the shivering driver to the clicking bones, and nally rested on the words Merveilles et Mort, written in red across the carriage’s side They appeared and disappeared with the swinging of a lantern Merveilles et Mort Wonders and Death He hoped that a wonder waited inside He had spent his life and a good part of his fortune seeking out those with special talents The reports about this particular sideshow traveling through Provence were extremely promising At one side of the carriage a ag snapped in the wind, its skull and crossbones ashing Pirates? An almost imperceptible smile crossed the gentleman’s lips These weren’t pirates Charlatans and gypsy souls, yes But pirates? No He had met real pirates on the open seas; had summarily put them to death The gentleman held up his hand and the driver pulled on the reins The horses slowed to a stop and snorted out frosty air, stomping their hooves “I would like to see your display,” the gentleman said His French was perfect, his accent Parisian “Oh, yes, yes, monsieur! I will be only too happy to show you.” The old man set his whip into its holder and climbed down, babbling excitedly “It is a marvelous collection! The greatest this side of the Nile Balms to cure cholera Elixirs to stave o death itself I have a ne ruby necklace, straight from Cleopatra’s tomb, that will make any arthritic condition vanish And it will soften the skin, strengthen the bones—” “I’m not interested in trinkets or balms,” the gentleman cut in “I want to see your prize attraction.” A door behind the bench slid open and a hag stuck her head out Her eyes gleamed within a nest of wrinkles She was a hundred years old if she was a day “It is an expensive view,” she rasped “An extremely rare specimen.” The gentleman opened a gloved hand Two golden coins caught the moonlight “I assume this will cover it.” The hag nodded and waved a hand at the driver “Yes, yes, monsieur,” the driver said, palming the coins “Of course Come right this way.” He led the gentleman to the rear door of the carriage More bones were strung across the back, charms against death The gentleman grinned Only savages relied on such charms and magic to defeat the unknown Learned men relied on logic The old man took a key from his pocket and unlocked the door with a brassy click He swung it open, and warm, moist air belched out The gentleman didn’t turn his nose from the rotten smell He had encountered much worse on the Crimean battlefields “Inside, that is where the prizes are!” The old driver tried to climb in, but the gentleman placed a hand on his shoulder and pulled him out of the way “I will enter alone.” “But, monsieur, only I can explain the origins The magic! The mystery! The restorative power of each item.” “I don’t need explanations.” The driver nodded and the gentleman stepped up into the fetid compartment, stooping to keep from banging his head The cramped space was poorly lit by one lantern swinging on a wire In a moment his eyes had adjusted and the details became clear There were canopic jars; glass bottles with hairless, pink creatures; tiny co ns marked with hieroglyphics; shrunken heads dangling from wires; and the taxidermied body of a half-cat, half-rabbit He had seen such stu ed creatures before, but this was a very good representation—it didn’t even look as though it had been stitched together He moved through the collection quickly, ducking under the lantern He squeezed between a stuffed snake and a giant bat with marbles for eyes At the far end of the carriage was a cage draped in black cloth He leaned in close From behind the fabric he heard something wheezing Without hesitation he pulled away the cover Two eyes, one larger than the other, goggled up at him in fright Above them was a tinge of red hair set on a roughhewn, pockmarked skull The gentleman inched; he had been expecting something ugly but this was beyond his imagining A true wretch of a creature crouched in the cage, pressing its back against the bars It wore a jackal fur vest, which was ill- tting due to the enormous hump on its back Pity wormed its way into the gentleman’s heart The unfortunate monster couldn’t be more than a year old It was standing upright, but the small cage forced it to bend its neck, emphasizing its hump On the bottom of the cage a plaque read L’ENFANT DU MONSTRE The gentleman could not stop staring The specimen’s arms looked strong; its legs were unnaturally muscled, but bowed and crooked Nature had been particularly cruel The thing was shivering, but seemed to grow curious It blinked, mewling softly The gentleman peered at it impassively This had been a wasted journey; three days’ travel from London to Provence only to nd a child imprisoned by its ugliness His informant had spoken so highly of this prize, had said the creature was beyond description and value Ah! That scoundrel would feel the lash of his anger The gentleman had lost time, when he had none to lose All the while England’s enemies would be inching closer to their goals He turned away, but the creature mewed again and whispered, “Puh-puh-ère?” Father? The gentleman stopped The voice sounded so human, so mournful, and it struck a chord in the man’s heart Years ago he’d had a wife who died giving birth to their child A boy, who had only lived long enough for his father to hold him The gentleman swallowed It was all in the past and best forgotten Yet, he turned back to the creature By its size and shape he decided it too was a boy A monstrous, malformed boy The man considered whether he had any food in his pockets Foolishness It was time to leave The boy said, “N-n-non p-partir,” and gazed at him with such absolute sadness that the gentleman was trans xed Then the boy let out a yelp, clenching his sts as though he were feeling a sharp stinging His face contorted, becoming even uglier The gentleman couldn’t look away Was it possible? Was the child actually changing, his face shifting so that his features … softened? He let out another whimper Where, moments ago, there had been a crooked nose with splayed nostrils, now the nose seemed to be straighter It was as if, seeing the horror in the gentleman’s eyes, the toddler willed himself to change his appearance into something more attractive The boy’s brow was atter, the eyes more even Was it the ickering of the gaslight? The gentleman stepped closer No, the boy’s face was indeed altered Then the child gave another yelp like that of a wounded puppy and shook his massive head The gentleman lowered the cover over the cage in amazement and took a deep breath This monster child was truly a wonder! Worth every moment spent away from England; worth his weight in gold His talent could prove to be a valuable asset His development would require years of investment, but the gentleman was good at playing the long game He climbed out of the carriage The old codger was stamping his feet on the ground, hugging himself for warmth “I wish to buy the item,” the gentlemen said “The one in the cage.” He kept his voice steady, hiding his excitement “Non! Non!” The driver waved his hands “That is not possible.” The hag limped around the corner of the carriage “He’s very precious Very precious.” The gentleman produced a pouch of coins “This will compensate you for your losses.” A bony hand shot out of the crone’s shawl and grasped the pouch She pried open the top and squinted inside “Oui … that is a fair deal.” wearing goggles lowered a rope ladder “Jump, Mr Fuhr! Jump!” he hollered “I’ll track you down, devil boy,” Fuhr said, giving him a sideways look “And I’ll throttle you until your ugly face turns blue That’s my promise.” He leapt, grabbing onto the dangling ladder Hakkandottir fired at Modo, almost hitting him He was still so angry at Fuhr, at all of them for what they had done to the children, that he bounded to the edge of the giant, jumped, and latched onto Fuhr’s leg The airship drew away, taking them over the Thames Fuhr kicked at him, but Modo tightened his grip “You won’t escape!” he cried Hakkandottir aimed her ri e, shouting, “Get out of the way, Fuhr! I need a clear shot.” Fuhr reached down to pry Modo o his leg, but just then, one side of the ladder snapped and they swung outward, dangling by the remaining half Fuhr growled and tried to climb higher, but the rest of the rope broke Fuhr’s hands found Modo’s throat as they tumbled through the sky and fell into the Thames 34 The Thames A s they hit the water, Fuhr’s hold was too strong for Modo to break Modo had been prevented from sucking in a nal gasp of air, and now they were sinking into the murky, cold water All Modo could see was his enemy’s angry face Fuhr’s was a twohanded death grip; they would both be dragged to the bottom, thanks to his metal appendages Modo pounded against the man’s enormous chest They sank deeper and deeper, until Modo felt his lungs would explode Fuhr’s right arm bubbled and his grasp suddenly loosened He shook the arm several times, but it sti ened and fell uselessly to his side The water must have a ected it, Modo thought Modo brought his legs up against Fuhr’s stomach Fuhr’s lips were moving and his hold on Modo’s throat grew even tighter Modo gave him a two-footed kick, broke his grip, and flailed away Fuhr lunged at Modo, but he sank heavily into the depths Modo’s lungs demanded air He kicked, his frenzied thrashings taking him in circles A realization burned: If I hadn’t been trapped inside Ravenscroft, I’d bloody well know how to swim Tharpa’s voice came to him then, as though he were speaking directly into his ear: No matter the situation, be calm Modo stopped his thrashings and allowed himself to drift He let out the tiniest bubble and noted which direction it went Up! That way is up! He kicked with purpose now The surface was far above him, but the light was getting closer He kicked and kicked Mrs Finchley! he thought Octavia! He churned his limbs, trying to reach the world above him, but he had used the last of his reserves He couldn’t stop from gulping in a mouthful of the putrid Thames And another He gulped until his lungs were full and he sank 35 Into the Murk O ctavia had followed the airship on foot up to the top of the river wall, right next to Parliament The moment after Modo fell from the sky, she yanked o her dress and dove into the Thames She swam to a cluster of bubbles, then shot straight down, her eyes open and stinging in the dirty water She spotted more bubbles and followed them down, down, until she felt she could go no further She scissor-kicked to the surface, gasped in a deep breath, and dove again The gloomy water gave up no sign of Modo She began to feel sick to her stomach She searched the water for more bubbles, but saw none, so she kicked into the depths, then back up for another gulp of air, and straight down again She’d spent months training alongside Tharpa, including learning to swim Control your breath, he’d told her Let it out slowly and you’ll go deeper She did this now, kicking and kicking to the bottom of the river After what felt like hours she nally saw a form nearby and propelled herself toward it The pressure hurt her ears She grabbed at the ragged shape It had arms and legs, but it was too dark to see it She pulled and strained every muscle in her body as she swam up, dragging the form with her She broke the surface and inhaled madly, then looked at the body in her hands and caught a glimpse of ragged red hair Modo? Her eyes stung with the lthy water, her vision blurred, so his face appeared twisted and grotesque The world was silent—all she heard was her heartbeat Her feet found purchase in the riverbank and she dragged him to the wharf A pair of hands lifted Modo from her arms and she looked up to see Tharpa “Do you need aid?” he said She shook her head, trembling uncontrollably He carried Modo a few feet away Octavia climbed onto the wharf, coughing, her hair plastered over her eyes, so she only glimpsed Modo She got the impression of a jutting lip, a bloated cheek, a drooping eye She wiped away the foul water with her ngers There was something wrong with her eyes Tharpa was pushing down on Modo’s chest and stomach with tremendous force When he saw Octavia watching he shifted, blocking her view of Modo She coughed and belched water, then fell back on the hard planks of the dock, closing her eyes A soldier brought her a blanket and said something, but her ears were still blocked She’d swallowed half the Thames All that disgusting water was inside her Lying on her side, Octavia spat out whatever she could bring up Then two shiny military riding boots stepped into her line of vision It took her a moment to realize they were filled by someone “You did well.” Mr Socrates sounded as though he were talking from the far end of a tunnel “Octavia You are a perfect angel.” “Angel?” Her voice was ragged Her ears popped painfully and the noise of the world rushed in “Agent,” Mr Socrates corrected “We don’t need angels here.” And with that, he laughed “He lives!” Tharpa shouted “He draws breath!” “Thank you,” Octavia said to no one in particular, and heaved a great sigh of relief 36 The Dying Fires F uhr sank upright, his feet landing rmly on the bottom of the Thames His lungs yearned for air He was too heavy to swim, but he lifted his legs and pushed forward, nding solid rocks buried in the silt He took another step and another A shell hadn’t killed him; bullets hadn’t killed him; some ugly devil-child wouldn’t be his end He saw the posts of a dock only twenty yards away and he slouched toward them He would climb the dock and nish destroying his enemy and anyone else who stood in his way Twenty long yards He could make it Water seeped into the coal chamber in his right leg and the limb bubbled to a stop He lifted his left leg, but slipped, and was forced to crawl on the bottom of the river, using only one arm and one leg He was fteen yards away Fourteen He would climb the dock and strangle the boy The chamber in his right leg died He dragged himself with one hand, digging deep into the riverbed, an inch at a time The coal re sputtered and died in that arm, too He was motionless He wanted to scream in anger He had to breathe He couldn’t wait another second All that surrounded him was water 37 A Marvel and a Monstrosity M odo spluttered and gagged and drew in several gasping breaths He gradually became aware that his head rested on hard planks and a dull light was shining in his eyes It was the sun, shrouded by fog A moment later it was blotted out by a dark shape He blinked and he saw that Tharpa was oating there, his lips moving silently Modo’s ears crackled and he heard the words “Young sahib, are you well?” Modo nodded slowly and let out another wet cough His hand went to his face Tharpa handed him a scarf, which he pulled up to his nose With Tharpa’s help, he slowly sat up It took him another few minutes before he muttered, “Must stand.” Tharpa helped him to his feet and allowed Modo to lean on him The scene around Modo came into focus He was at the wharf near the Houses of Parliament, Victoria Tower casting a long shadow A line of soldiers in crimson frock coats had set up barricades at the west end of the park to keep the curious away It all seemed so oddly ordinary to Modo, as though he saw this sort of thing every day The giant stood at the edge of the Houses of Parliament, right next to the Thames, as if it had been there for a hundred years, frozen in position with one metallic arm hanging at its side The other arm was caught in the topmost branches of a tree Soldiers in black uniforms climbed wooden ladders, working with wrenches and saws to release the children, many of whom already lay on the ground, or sat, leaning against one another Other soldiers had begun to dismantle the top of the frame, loading the pieces onto wagons and driving them to the wharf The prince was already gone; Modo assumed he had been the first to be rescued Mr Socrates stood near the giant, leaning on his walking stick Occasionally, those o cers in black uniforms would come up to receive commands from him, then march double-time to their tasks Modo walked haltingly toward the children, each step a labor A cherub-faced soldier was giving pieces of chocolate to the ones who were awake Others appeared to be asleep Modo had expected that a few of them would be dead, and was glad, so glad, to not see any who had perished Finally, he found the one he was looking for “Oppie,” he said The boy looked up He was holding a chocolate bar, his ngers sticky “Wot?” he said His face still looked puffy, his body enlarged by the tincture, but Modo could see some of the boy’s finer features coming back “I’m Mr Wellington,” Modo said “Oh, it’s Mr W, is it? You’re here, too Fancy ’at.” “I was investigating all of this And I’m so glad you weren’t harmed,” Modo said “’Armed? Well, me too, guvnuh,” he said, talking through another mouthful of chocolate Modo noticed a military cross pinned to his shirt “Where did you get that?” “Prince Albert gave me that just before they took ’im away Said ’e’s going to give me a tour of Buckin’am.” Modo grinned “I hope you’ll still have time to listen to the rest of Varney.” “Will I! You bet, Mr W.” “Well, I’ll look you up in the next while And we can that.” Modo stepped back a few feet The boy continued eating and Modo watched with satisfaction He was alive He looked around at the other children and spotted a girl with red hair gulping down her own chocolate Could she be Ester? They were all alive Coming back to their old selves At his back he heard a step and a small thud Without turning, Modo said, “Mr Socrates, I presume.” Mr Socrates laughed “Welcome back to the land of the living You accomplished an impressive feat You must feel proud.” Modo felt only bone weary “Thank you.” “That structure … it really was a marvel We have much to learn from it.” “It was a monstrosity.” “You are mistaken, Modo What Dr Hyde and the Clockwork Guild did to the children was immoral The young should not be used to ght battles; that’s not the gentleman’s way But the war machine itself is a marvel of scienti c ingenuity Imagine twenty of them on a battlefield.” Modo wanted to disagree, but thought better of it “Why did they it?” he asked “What did they hope to gain?” “It’s a symbolic rst strike My best guess is that they hoped that papers all across the world would report on this incident We’ll cover up what details we can, but we cannot hide the fact that the Houses of Parliament, the very heart of our empire, were attacked What they want to spread is fear Sometimes governments are paralyzed just waiting for the next blow They begin pointing ngers at one another, markets falter, and soon the peasants are out in the streets sharpening their axes But you shouldn’t trouble yourself thinking about all this business now You need some rest.” “Gibbons—that is, Mr Gibbons—he”—Modo’s breath was labored—“betrayed you.” Mr Socrates gave Modo a sharp look “Explain.” “I had a run-in with him in the chamber under Saint James’s Square With Miss Hakkandottir.” Mr Socrates patted Modo’s shoulder “That is important information Thank you I’ll have Tharpa take you to a safe place to recover from this assignment.” He paused “I’m very pleased with what you’ve done in these past few days.” Modo nodded “It was only my duty, sir.” Mr Socrates smiled “Yes Duty If only we all felt as much loyalty to it as you do.” As Tharpa guided him into the carriage, Modo asked, “Where’s Octavia?” “She has returned to the Langham She was tired and wet.” “Wet?” “She’s the one who pulled you out of the river.” “She did?” He remembered seeing her swim toward him He’d thought it was an angel He’d believed he was dead “Then,” he said in amazement, “I owe her my life.” “Yes,” Tharpa said, as he sat in the seat across from Modo He banged on the roof and, with the clomping of hooves, the carriage rolled down Abingdon Street, leaving the giant, the children, the soldiers, and the smashed Houses of Parliament behind 38 Behind the Mask O n his fourth day of rest Modo sat on a chaise longue at the edge of a large balcony overlooking Kew Gardens The view of shrubs, trees, and a glass house reminded him of Ravenscroft He passed his time dressed in nightclothes and a heavy, warm robe, his face behind a white mask A nightcap hid his pockmarked skull The sun warmed him and a pug-nosed servant brought him tea and food and the Times whenever he desired it He was becoming especially fond of croissants and jam Not once did he see a mention in the papers of the attack on the Houses of Parliament All he found were a couple of paragraphs about renovations and a piece about a tunnel collapsing directly beneath St James’s Square Obviously, the Permanent Association’s in uence ran deep within the publishers’ networks How all the witnesses were silenced, Modo didn’t know But if no one would print their words other than the most disreputable papers, the whole event would eventually become little more than fodder for drunken pub tales Today Modo’s morning paper ritual was interrupted by the tap of a walking stick and the scrape of a chair on the floor He lowered the Times to see Mr Socrates sitting across from him The bruise below his eye was gone “How goes your recuperation?” Mr Socrates asked “I’m doing well, sir I enjoy being pampered.” “You deserve the rest You achieved so much in a short time Modo smiled behind the mask “I’ve been taught well.” Mr Socrates let out a short laugh “I don’t need compliments, young man And let’s not forget that you did disobey me when you chose to confront the mechanized leviathan on your own I suppose it’s a sign that you can think for yourself, but I could have lost you.” Was that emotion in his voice? Modo looked him in the eyes, but they gave nothing away “Don’t disobey me again,” Mr Socrates said If I hadn’t disobeyed you, many of those children would have died, he thought But Modo decided it was best just to nod in agreement “What will become of the orphans?” he asked, finally “They lost their wol ike features as the tincture wore o , and so far, none of them has had any measurable aftere ects We’ve been removing the bolts so they can live normal lives The Association has set up an orphange for the ones who have no caregivers In time they’ll likely find employment in the colonies.” “There was a boy, his name was Oppie What of him?” “Oppie? Yes, Octavia asked about him too And about the girl, Ester Both my agents appear to have become a little too sentimental.” But he said this with a smile “Oppie is healing and will soon be delivered to his parents He seems to have su ered no ill effects But only time will tell.” “That’s good news, then.” Modo sipped his tea “And what of Gibbons?” Mr Socrates shrugged “He was found in the Thames, a knife in his back I assume the Clockwork Guild was finished with him.” Modo couldn’t help but wonder if Mr Socrates was telling the truth Gibbons had, after all, been a double agent It was best not to dwell on it He buttered a croissant, watching as two swans landed in a pond in the distant gardens “I worry about Oscar Featherstone,” Modo said “Ah, that is an unfortunate situation He will be hanged next week.” “But he’s innocent!” “No one outside our circle knows about Hyde’s tincture, so his lawyer cannot use it for his defense Oscar did kill his father; there’s no way to stop justice once its wheels have begun to roll.” “That’s not fair!” Mr Socrates shook his head “It’s not about fairness, Modo There are some things that cannot be revealed It’s that simple.” He got up from his chair “I want you to rest your mind and body That’s your assignment now You’re not to be concerned about the larger picture; all is unfolding as it should.” He took a step to go, then turned back “You have another visitor, by the way I shall send her up.” Modo tapped his ngers together nervously Mrs Finchley? Octavia? He wasn’t sure which one he wanted to see more He didn’t have time to change his face, but he made his body longer, his hump less obvious, and his shoulders a little wider A minute later Octavia appeared on the balcony in a blue dress and a thick white shawl The sight of her made him draw in a deep breath, and his nostrils whistled Thankfully, she didn’t seem to hear it He wished he could take her for a walk in Kew Gardens “Miss Milkweed,” he said “Mr Modo.” “Apparently, I owe you my life.” “Yes,” she said simply “I’m not sure what overtook me.” “Perhaps you couldn’t live without my sense of humor.” She laughed “I see you are feeling better.” “Much better Well fed, too I’m as stuffed as a Christmas turkey.” “Good Good.” She seemed distracted, not quite herself Modo wasn’t certain what to say, so he asked, “And how are you?” “I am well.” A silence descended She looked out over Kew Gardens and said, “It is a beautiful view.” “Especially now that you are here.” He hadn’t meant to say that out loud Perhaps the drop of morphine he had taken had loosened his tongue Octavia gave him a crooked smile “There are two things that confuse me, Modo The rst is about myself I don’t know why I dove into that water after you It felt as though it was about more than just trying to save a comrade.” Modo wanted to say, Maybe you have feelings for me, but he had already said something foolish enough His heart was a hummingbird “As I said, it confuses me Why would I risk my life? Do you have an answer?” “Me?” “Yes, you.” “I—I don’t know,” he said He couldn’t say another word She was so beautiful, he thought, and he remembered his own revulsion each time he looked in the mirror “I am also confused … about who you are, exactly So far I have seen you with two faces, if that makes sense It’s impossible, but it was not my imagination I’d like to know which one was real I have to know what you look like Then I will know who you are.” “I can’t explain it,” he said “Don’t you trust me?” “Yes I trust you, Octavia.” “Then show me your face, Modo I beg of you So I might know you It’s as simple as removing that mask.” It was that simple He could just lower the mask, show his true self and be done with it But his hand faltered as he raised it His face was not a face It was a horrid hole where a face should be She would take one look and that would be the end of everything He couldn’t show her now Not ever He was ugly Mr Socrates had told him so He saw it himself every day “You cannot look at my real face,” he said, surprised that his voice only quavered a little “No one can ever see it.” She sighed softly “Very well,” she said, and silently walked into the house and was gone Modo got up and went to the railing to stare out at the gardens This was the way things had to be It was better for both of them Yes It was The birds began singing again The sun was bright in the sky EPILOGUE Hanging Day OSCAR FEATHERSTONE AWAKENED EARLY on the morning of his hanging Birdsong drifted through the arrow-slit window The simple, beautiful melody brought tears to his eyes His lawyer had been a bone-thin man with the peculiar name of Dubney Swinder and the odd habit of wearing a yellow cravat that made his pale face appear translucent Oscar, his hope long since gone, had recognized the lackluster nature of his barrister The court session had been over in less than ten minutes; the rotund judge in his white wig banged the gavel, and his pronouncement of death by hanging reverberated “The court doth order you to be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul!” Oscar’s mother, wearing her black crinoline dress and waving a black handkerchief, had begun to wail uncontrollably from the gallery as two Beefeaters hauled him back to the prisoner wagon In a few short hours, Beefeaters would place him in the same wagon and haul him to the gallows in Newgate Prison His only consolation was that there would be no crowds Public hangings had been banned several years ago The hangman would have to be there, of course A key clicked in the cell door, but Oscar didn’t bother to raise his head Part of him wanted to grab onto the bars of his cell and hold tight, forcing a scene and making them drag him out of the prison, but another part didn’t really care how the next few hours of his life went The door swung open, rusty hinges screeching A Beefeater holding a lantern entered “Oscar Featherstone,” he said “Yes.” “It is time.” “No No.” Oscar swallowed the lump in his throat Maintain your dignity, he told himself “It’s too early.” “We must go now They don’t appreciate us being late.” Oscar looked up It was York, the man who had taken to taunting him with a raspy version of “The hangman is a tricky knave, he soon my neck will draw.” York was all business as he roughly unshackled Oscar from the wall and pushed him out of the cell It had been weeks since Oscar had walked any distance and he staggered down the hall, his shackles clanking They’d already rubbed his flesh raw and every step hurt York grabbed Oscar by the shoulder and pushed him down the hallways of the Lieutenant’s Lodgings They encountered one maid, who covered her mouth as they rattled past Oscar was shoved through a door into the open air He had a moment to look at the sky, then he was thrown into the back of a cell wagon and the door was slammed shut Ravens cawed, chiding him from the top of the Bell Tower He watched through the bars as the wagon rumbled away from the Tower of London It was a little past sunrise, but already costermongers and dockworkers were plodding along the sidewalks of the Tower Bridge to their jobs A few squinted at the wagon as it passed He wondered about the moment he would know death, and brought his hands to his neck Would it hurt? Would he see his father again in the afterlife? If so, he would ask for forgiveness He huddled in the corner, trying to keep his sobs silent After what felt like an hour, the wagon stopped and York opened the door “Get out, and be careful not to bang your head,” he said with an unexpected gentleness He guided Oscar down to the road When Oscar looked up he was shocked speechless He was standing just inside the gates of his father’s estate York unlocked the handcuffs and they clattered onto the cobblestone drive “I … I don’t understand What’s happening?” “You were not responsible for your father’s death,” York said In the brightening morning light York seemed shorter and a little hunched over “They’ll hang you for the crime anyway Justice isn’t always on the side of the just.” “But why are you releasing me?” “I’m not who you think I am.” At that moment, Oscar saw that the man wasn’t York He had very similar features, that was all “Who—who are you?” He grabbed Oscar’s shoulders rmly “Listen, carefully, Mr Featherstone You have very little time March into that house, shave o your beard, cut and color your hair with shoe polish, and disguise yourself in your servant’s clothes Ask your mother for money, as much as possible, and tell her she must never admit you were here Do not imagine, even for a second, that it would be safe for you to hide out in England Take the rst boat you can nd to America or Australia Do this within the half hour.” He unlocked Oscar’s leg manacles “Go now!” “Thank you I thank you,” Oscar said, nearly weeping with relief “It was the right thing to do,” the man said over his shoulder as he walked away “Mrs Finchley would be proud of me.” Not quite believing any of the last few minutes, Oscar Featherstone watched the man climb back onto the wagon and ride through the front gate toward the rising sun Then Oscar ran into his home to find his mother ARTHUR SLADE was raised in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan and began writing at an early age He received an English honors degree from the University of Saskatchewan, spent several years in advertising, and is now a full-time ction writer He is the author of Dust, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature, Tribes, and Megiddo’s Shadow His most recent novel is Jolted: Newton Starker’s Rules for Survival He lives in Saskatoon with his wife, Brenda Baker Visit his Web site at www.arthurslade.com This is a work of ction Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental Copyright © 2009 by Arthur Slade All rights reserved Published in the United States by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York Wendy Lamb Books and the colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc Visit us on the Web! www.randomhouse.com/teens Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at www.randomhouse.com/teachers Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Slade, Arthur G (Arthur Gregory) The hunchback assignments / Arthur Slade.—1st ed p cm Summary: In Victorian London, fourteen-year-old Modo, a shape-changing hunchback, becomes a secret agent for the Permanent Association, which strives to protect the world from the evil machinations of the Clockwork Guild eISBN: 978-0-375-89389-6 [1 Dis gured persons—Fiction Supernatural—Fiction Spies—Fiction London (England)—History—19th century —Fiction Great Britain—History—Victoria, 1837-1901—Fiction Science fiction.] I Title PZ7.S628835Hu 2009 [Fic]—dc22 2008054378 Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read v3.0 ... attractive The boy’s brow was atter, the eyes more even Was it the ickering of the gaslight? The gentleman stepped closer No, the boy’s face was indeed altered Then the child gave another yelp... jumped to the ground They marched over to the carriage and, at the gentleman’s command, pulled the caged monster-child from the gypsy carriage and transferred it to the other “Farewell,” the gentleman... him then that Tharpa no longer had a father And Modo did not know who his own father was This was something they shared Then another thought came to him: Mr Socrates was father to both of them
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